Crimes of Passion

The murders of Arturo Gatti, possibly by his 23-year-old ex-stripper wife, and of Steve McNair by his 20-year-old lover, may reflect yet another sign that more Americans than we know -especially younger Americans - are losing their sense of self and, with it, their psychological and moral bearings.

Certainly, crimes of passion are nothing new. As has always been true, the killers of Gatti and McNair had to have had extreme life stories with major psychological fault lines reaching back, quite possibly, to childhood. But in both cases, the victims were famous men who may well have offered the women in their lives temporary and fragile shelter from deep, unresolved questions about whether they could exist independently or would crumble into nothingness without their connections to fame and fortune. It is often those who feel dead themselves who take the lives of others.

Some may think it's too big a leap to draw any connection between a lack of respect for life and the artificial, Internet-based, technology-fueled existences that too many of today's teens and twenty-somethings have lived, but I'm not so sure. I think that the kind of existential panic - the panic of having nothing real at one's core - that can lead a young woman to murder her famous lover, rather than lose him, is a distant cousin of posting videos on YouTube of staged beatings and the deconstruction of real lives and relationships into profiles, IMs and tweets.

In a world that worships reality TV parents who turn their children into entertainment automatons and a psychologically disturbed pop star whose celebrity was initially forged through enslavement to his sadistic father, respect for one's own life and that of others can start to erode. Gaining fame and saving face on Facebook is what matters, and the loss of image can feel like the loss of everything. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that cases of extreme violence are now just the same as they always were - outlying cases that are no predictor of anything about the rest of us.

But as a psychiatrist who has made it part of my life's work to resist dismissing my instincts, I now sense something ominous about our culture reflected in the worst deeds of the most violent among us. I fear we are at risk for losing respect for one another and for human life. I fear our fragile God-given capacity for empathy is under siege. I fear that in obsessing over "Blanket" Jackson (and I feel a little disturbed by even writing his preposterous name), who was dangled over a railing by a father who may not have fathered him at all, we open the door to outlandish acts of dramatic violence that would make for decent psychological thrillers, but are now the stuff of what we call "real" life.